Monday, December 30, 2013

Snowy Owls: The Invasion of the Century!

Even if you're not a birder, you probably know what a Snowy Owl looks like. Harry Potter's owl Hedwig is a Snowy Owl, a huge white owl with bright golden yellow eyes. Snowies are Arctic birds that are at home on the arctic tundra and are not often seen in the lower 48 states, although some are usually seen in our northernmost states during the winter months. This year, however, is different -- it's what we call an "invasion year," when Snowies move further south and are seen in places where they are considered very rare, including Virginia.

Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology explains this phenomenon very well on the CCB's blog
( He writes:

"The winter of 2013 will be remembered as a historic irruption year for snowy owls throughout northeastern North America. Birds are being reported in numbers not seen in a century or more. Such irruption events are triggered by productivity booms on arctic breeding grounds. Snowies are opportunistic breeders with the capability of producing large broods when food conditions allow. Hatch-year birds have yet to develop the hunting skills required to withstand arctic winters and move to easier hunting grounds within lower latitudes during the fall months. During irruption years the large numbers of young move south out of the arctic like a wave. In boom years like 2013 this wave can be like a tsunami."

Virginia birders have been on an adrenalin rush, locating and photographing Snowy Owls. There have been maybe a dozen sitings so far this winter, both along the coast and inland. Not only are Snowies rare, but they are also large, stately, gorgeous, and very impressive, making them one of the "most wanted" birds on a birder's wish list.

The Snowy Owl at the top of this page is one that I photographed at Craney Island in Portsmouth when I went there on a field trip with members of the Virginia Beach Audubon Society, led by Steve and Julie Couri. We did not discover this bird on our own; it had been previously reported and we were hoping it had stayed put long enough for us to get a look. Not only did we get "a look," we got once-in-a-lifetime looks at this magnificent bird. It was a great day!

I want to share photos that other birders have taken of Snowy Owls throughout Virginia and, in the photo below, from Buxton, N.C. near the Hatteras lighthouse. Keith Roberts of Chesapeake took this beautiful photo on December 2nd; this was one of the first Snowies to show up in our region. (I planned to chase it too, but the Bonner Bridge closed the day before I could go).

Victor Laubach of the Augusta Bird Club in Waynesboro photographed two different Snowies, one in Dayton, and one in Bridgewater (photos of both are below). He writes:

"The one in Dayton was found by a local person but the birder/photographer who reported it was Kevin Shank. I read the rare bird alert on my email around 1pm that day and I dropped everything and drove there. That bird was pretty dark and was either and adult female or a 1st-year male because of the dark barring with white bib. It’s difficult to tell for sure. It was perched all day on a wooden post in the back of a Mennonite Church."

"The one in Bridgewater was found by me along with Josh Laubach (my son) and Gabriel Mapel as we were driving over highway 81 on Cecil Wampler Rd. Just before we got over the highway my son shouted out "Snowy Owl, Snowy Owl!!!", whereupon I hit the brakes, backed up and the bird was sitting only 150 feet away on a fence at the edge of a cornfield. It sat there for a few hours and then took flight twice, landing in the cut cornfield both times. This bird appears to me to be a male, either adult or immature. It's hard for me to tell. It's pretty light with very faint barring on breast and more apparent dark spots on back, wings and tail. This is a different bird that I photographed in Dayton on 12/3/2013, which had heavy barring on breast and top of head."

William Leigh also photographed the Bridgewater owl -- in fact, he lives in Bridgewater. He wrote:

"There have been numerous reports of  Snowy Owl here in Rockingham county this Winter. I managed to miss all the previous birds and was getting very eager to see a Snowy here in my own backyard so to speak. Finally I got a call from a friend on the December 27th  that a Snowy was sighted just 3 miles from house! When I arrived the bird was sitting on a post right beside interstate I-81. Several hours later with dusk upon us and the light  fading  fast the bird became more active and at one point flew directly overhead. Over the last several days the bird has become more active right at dusk."

Below are his photos; one of my favorites is the owl sitting on a post right on the freeway. It's just so absurd! The second is a beautiful photo he got later when the owl flew over his head, a very hard shot to "freeze" and get in good focus. He did a great job:

Barbara Houston is well known to Virginia birders as a prolific photographer, and she shares links to many of her photos on the Virginia Birding listserv and on her Fyne Fotography website ( She found and photographed her Snowy Owl at Chincoteague -- after three other unsuccessful trips there! Here is her report and her outstanding photo:

"[My favorite photo] has to be this one, the first owl we saw on the day...and the lighthouse in the background! We had previously visited the Chincoteague beach 3 other times with no luck when we arrived around 8am on Thursday morning.  We were greeted right away with a snowy owl sitting near the parking area at the south end of the beach while several other photographers watched.  We parked a hundred yards or so away and walked slowly down the beach until we were positioned to take some pictures.  The bird was gorgeous and all that we had imagined.  It sat and gave us good looks for about twenty minutes before moving down to the off road area of the beach.  I was fortunate to get this shot as it took off with the lighthouse in the background."

The rest of the photos, below, are of the Snowy Owl that was at Craney Island, and all were taken on that Virginia Beach Audubon field trip arranged by the Couri's (thank you again, Steve and Julie!) You'll see different "faces" of the owl in these photos, from comical to sleepy to stately. I've included two photos each from Steve Couri, Julie Couri, Keith Roberts, and myself, so I hope you don't tire of them. But who would ever tire of a Snowy Owl!?

The two photos above were taken by Steve Couri; the two below were taken by his wife Julie.                    

Keith Roberts took the following two photos, and writes: "These were taken on the Craney Island trip with the Virginia Beach Audubon. This Owl was located on the north side of the island. I think we woke it up as it was yawning."

And last, two (okay, three..) more photos of my own. And let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year and "Peace on Earth." This sentiment is usually accompanied by a picture of a white dove, but I think the Snowy Owl is much better, don't you?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Virginia, a Peregrine and Some Butterflies

It has really been far too long since I posted anything here. My last post, in August, was about some of Virginia’s damselflies, and I promised to write about the dragonflies next, but suddenly it is the end of November, it’s cold and rainy and windy, and it seems totally inappropriate to choose dragonflies as a topic now.

I have not taken any good field trips this fall, and did not have a singular, amazing outdoor experience to write about; most of my time lately was spent re-roofing my house, remodeling an old bathroom, and dealing with things that required me to stay home much of the time. So I’ll give you a little capsule, a hodgepodge of nature experiences I've had this fall between the roofers and plumbers and such.

The photos above are of  the best bird I saw this fall, without a doubt (“best” in birder-speak means “rare.”) This is a juvenile Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that someone spotted on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in October. I gave chase on the first day I could, and was able to photograph it.  I was not able to get close to the bird; it was on private property, and I will not trespass, nor will I knowingly get so close to a bird that I bother it. So this was a case where I hand-held my long lens, held my breath and tried my best not to move or shake, hoping for the sharpest photo possible under the circumstances! The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is common in the Great Plains but is extremely rare in Virginia. This individual is a juvenile that was hatched this summer, and it simply migrated in the wrong direction; it went east instead of south. Do a Google image search for this bird and see what this guy will look like when he's grown; you will be amazed at the size of the adult bird’s tail!

I went to the Eastern Shore on a dark day in November with a friend, hoping for some vagrant birds. We had no luck with rarities, but on the return trip, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched on a light post. After slamming on my brakes and backing up down the highway, I got some photos, but they were all dark and muddy looking because of the weather. I've never had photo-editing software other than the basic tools that come free with the camera (I've always been unreasonably stubborn about not using “tricks” or "cheating"  to get a better photo than what I took). But my friend took one of the photos and did some work on it with PhotoShop, and when he sent me the result, it blew me away! I immediately decided that I must trash all my principles, buy Lightroom, and start learning how to use it to improve my photos. Here are the before and after results of the Peregrine:

As I do every summer, I did raise and release some butterflies in my yard from caterpillars that I search for and find on the native plants in my garden. I've talk about this before; I collect the caterpillars and house them in screen cages in my garage, where I feed them at least twice a day. After a couple of weeks of doing nothing but eating and pooping, the caterpillar morphs into its chrysalis stage and remains dormant until it emerges as an adult butterfly. This process requires tending to the caterpillars at least twice a day, and is actually a main cause of my not being able to go out on field trips; if you’re not there to clean the cages and feed the caterpillars on time, they will not survive.

Over the past few years I have raised and released over 6000 butterflies of over 20 different species, which is very rewarding. The survival rate of caterpillars in the wild is extremely low, so raising and releasing results in a few more butterflies out there in the neighborhood and the world. This year I was thrilled to raise and release two new species that had never laid eggs in my yard before, the Viceroy butterfly and the Giant Swallowtail.

Freshly-hatched Viceroy butterfly. That's its chrysalis on the right, from which it just emerged.

First the Viceroy: Different butterfly species are dedicated to specific kinds of plants (called “host plants”) when it comes to laying their eggs; they only lay them on the foodplants that the hatched caterpillars will eat.  I had never planted the Viceroy’s host plant before; I had seen a few adults nectaring at my flowering trees and shrubs, but had never found caterpillars until I found them this year on my new Corkscrew Willow. My father died a couple of years ago, and as a memento, I took some of the Corkscrew Willow cuttings from the flower arrangements at his funeral, wrapped them in wet tissue and flew home with them in my suitcase. Once I got home I put them back in water until they rooted, then I planted them in dirt. This year they were large enough to put outdoors in big pots, and they grew into trees that are 6-8 feet tall now. Corkscrew Willows are one of the Viceroy’s host plants, and one or two adults found them and laid their eggs.  Success! (If you plant it, they will come….)

The other new butterfly species to lay eggs in my yard this year was the Giant Swallowtail (above). This is a southern species that is common in Florida but is decidedly uncommon in Virginia; they do not even occur here most years. One day I noticed a bunch of tiny, newly-hatched caterpillars on a small little Rue plant that I had in a pot. I presumed they were common Black Swallowtail caterpillars, which eat Rue, and I checked them every day or so to see whether they were running out of food and needed to be moved to my Parsley or Fennel plants, which they also eat. I finally noticed that they looked “different,” and realized that these were, unbelievably, about 60 Giant Swallowtail caterpillars! Giants also eat Rue, but not Parsley and Fennel, so I was out of food for them. I called my butterfly friends immediately, and they saved the day when they brought me a potted Citrus tree; in Florida, citrus trees are the most common Giant Swallowtail host plant. I gave away most of the caterpillars, but kept about a dozen that fed on the citrus tree and then went into chrysalis. Most later emerged as adult butterflies, like the one above.

 Young Giant Swallowtail caterpillar. They look like bird poop to predators, 
which is a very effective defense mechanism.

Here he is, several days older. He has lost his slick sheen, but
still looks rather distasteful!

 If bothered, these caterpillars attempt to scare away whatever is bothering them 
by displaying their red osmeterium, or "horns."

 Unlike our other black swallowtail species, the 
Giant Swallowtail's underwings and body are yellow.

Some of the Giants went to Lauren Tafoya, who manages the butterfly house at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. She does an amazing job there, raising and releasing thousands of butterflies of many species each year. She had a few Giants at the Gardens already, but the ones she added from my yard will expand their genetic base and obviously increase the population. If you go to the Botanical Gardens next spring, you might see some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the butterfly that laid eggs on the little Rue plant in my little yard.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Virginia Rarity at the Chesapeake Central Library: A Black Witch Moth!

The Chesapeake Central Library where I work held its annual "Monsterfest" program on October 5. On that day the library was filled with horror and supernatural enthusiasts, vendors, speakers, and panelists, many of them dressed up as their favorite monsters, ghouls, manga characters, and an impressive array of otherworldly creatures. It's was quite an event!

The evening before Monsterfest (coincidence...?) a huge, dark moth appeared on the library building and it remained there for the duration of Monsterfest. It remained inconspicuous in the shadows, but one of our library staff saw it and showed it to me. I had never seen anything like it, in person or in any Virginia nature publications, and I had never heard of any Virginia moth that was as big as this one. Confused, I did some research and identified it as -- are you ready? -- a Black Witch Moth! It is also sometimes call a Bat Moth because it is so big and dark that it can look like a bat. How appropriate for Monsterfest day! This individual is an adult male, and he is in surprisingly good condition considering the distance he traveled to get here:

What makes this moth's appearance even more "spooky" is that it is extremely rare in Virginia, with only a handful of historic records of its occurrence here. The moth's home is in Central America and Mexico, and in most years they move into southern Texas. Once the rainy season hits Texas in June, the moths sometimes wander further north into the United States and are mostly recorded in Texas, Florida, and the far southern states through October.

During outbreak years when the moths disperse north in larger numbers than usual, a few individuals have been recorded as far north as Canada, although they still are extremely rare north of Texas. As stated above, Virginia has only a small handful of historic records of the moth's occurrence. A few might enter Virginia every few years, but only 3 or 4 (?) have ever been documented.

So the Black Witch that came to the Chesapeake Library for Monsterfest was a very big deal! I photographed it and have sent photos and details to Steven M. Roble, Ph.D., staff zoologist at the 
Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and to a Texas entomologist who tracks the movements of this species and requests reports of any sitings outside of Texas. 

I can't emphasize enough the startling size of this moth species. It has a wingspan of about 7 inches and is the largest moth that occurs anywhere in North America. The photo above doesn't do it justice, so one of our staff measured the bricks on our building and Photoshopped a ruler to scale next to the moth, to give some perspective:

There is much legend and folklore associated with the Black Witch Moth, undoubtedly because of its size and dark, murky coloration. One of the legends in Mexico is that a sick person will die if the moth enters his house.  A variation on this legend in southern Texas is that death only occurs if the moth flies in and visits all four corners of the house. These legends have evolved into a joke that if a Black Witch Moth flies over your head, you will lose your hair! Another legend: if you see one of these moths, it means someone has cursed you.

There are some "good fortune" legends as well; in Hawaii, the moth is the embodiment of a loved one who has just died. In the Bahamas, it is said that if a moth lands on you, you will come into money. And in South Texas, some say that you will win the lottery if a moth lands above your door and stays a while. 

I looked for "our" moth again the day after Monsterfest, but it had disappeared during the night. It was a real treat to have hosted such a rare and beautiful creature, if only for a day or two.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Some Virginia Damselflies

Those of you who read my blog with any regularity know that I’m all about birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and any living creatures that I stumble upon when I’m out exploring nature.  A big part of the experience for me is getting a decent photo of as many different species as I can; it’s gotten to the point where I almost feel like I haven’t seen a critter if I haven’t taken its photo! And in the case of smaller critters, a photograph sometimes becomes essential for the identification process. Damselflies, for instance…

In the last couple of years I have taken a keener interest in damselflies, and have learned so much about them; their life cycles, their field marks, and the surprising number of species that we have in Virginia. I’m constantly trying to learn where to go to find the different species, but this is an ongoing process and I’m still pretty much a beginner. Some damselflies are large enough that they can be seen and identified with the naked eye, but many are so small or so similar to other damselfly species that a photograph is needed to figure out what kind they are.

There are three very general families of damselflies: Broad-winged, Spread-winged, and Pond Damselflies. Broad-winged damselfly species are the largest and most conspicuous of the three families. Almost everyone who has been outdoors has at one time noticed the gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing flying lazily around vegetated edges of shallow waters; it is probably the most common of the Broad-winged Damselflies in our area (photo below). It’s easy to see at the Chesapeake Arboretum at the trailhead in summer.The male has a bright green, iridescent body that reflects different hues in different lights, and opaque black wings.  Another fairly common Broad-winged damselfly in Virginia is the American Rubyspot, one of my favorites. The photo at the top of this blog entry is the male of that species.

The second family of damselflies is the Spreadwings. True to their name, they spread their wings when at rest, rather than holding them over their bodies like the other damselfly families do. I haven’t seen as many Spreadwings as I have the other kinds, but here are photos of two of the species I have seen:

 Slender Spreadwing

Swamp Spreadwing

Pond Damselflies are by far the largest family of damselflies, and they can be further broken down into subfamilies; the “Dancers” are the largest, the “Bluets” are of average damselfly size and are the most numerous (and usually have blue and black field marks), and the “Forktails” are the tiniest  of the damselflies.

Here are some of the "Dancers" you can find in the Hampton Roads area:

Damselflies come in many bright colors, and this male Variable Dancer is one of the most stunning.

 The Blue-fronted Dancer is one of the most common in our region. 

It's easy to spot a Blue-tipped Dancer when it is flying, because that 
bright blue tip on its abdomen is conspicuous as it moves around.

The "Bluets" might be my favorite of the damselflies because there are so many kinds, and identifying them is such a challenge, which I like! Most of them (but not all) have various combinations of black and blues, with minor differences that distinguish them from each other. Here are some examples:

This is not a very good photo, but it illustrates my point. Both of these damselflies are Bluets, but you can easily tell that they are different species if you look closely at their field marks. The one on top is a
 Double-striped Bluet, and the bottom one is a Skimming Bluet.

This one is called an Aurora Damsel. Most bluets have black stripes somewhere along the sides of their thorax, but the Aurora shows solid blue, which helps to identify it.

The Familiar Bluet (above) is probably the most common and widespread damselfly in North America. If you compare this individual to the other bluets, above, you can see differences in the spacing of the blue and black markings on the abdomen, which is a good field mark to use to start the identification process. 

This Turquoise Bluet has no blue markings at all on its abdomen.

The Azure Bluet, above, also has no blue stripes on most of its abdomen, but you can use other small field marks to distinguish it from the Turquoise Bluet and other species; damselfly enthusiasts look at the size and shape of the eyespots, the width of the black stripe on the side of the thorax, the pattern on the abdomen, and the amount of blue at the end of the abdomen, among other things. I know, we're nuts....

Let's look at a few Forktails. These are the smallest of the damselflies and can be very hard to find even when they're out in the open. The Citrine Forktail (photo below) is smaller than a straight pin! To take this photo, I had to sit down in the grass with my macro lens and go through all kinds of contortions that my body wasn't used to -- and I got chigger bites to boot.

The male Rambur's Forktail, below, is one of the more common and widespread Forktails. It's larger than the Citrine, but it's still easy to miss. What usually gets my attention is seeing the two brightly colored parts (the thorax and blue at the end of the abdomen) moving in tandem; the darker parts of the abdomen are harder to see at first, so the bright parts look disconnected.

The tiny Fragile Forktail is also very common here. Below are pictures of the adult male, an adult female, and an immature female. As if damselfly identification isn't hard enough, the sexes and ages of each species are often completely different, as illustrated here: 

Adult male Fragile Forktail. The easiest field mark to look for in the male is the green
 "exclamation point" on the thorax.

Adult female Fragile Forktail

Immature female Fragile Forktail. Note that she has the same bright  "exclamation point" 
on her thorax as the male. Soon her colors will change and she'll look like the adult female 
in the previous photo. If you look very carefully at the adult, you do see a very faded exclamation point on her thorax.

Last, I want to show you one of my favorites, the Duckweed Firetail. This species is found only in ponds where there is Duckweed, and I found a nice little pond at the Dismal Swamp that had several. The Firetail is surprisingly difficult to find despite its outrageous, bright coloration, because of its small size:

I hope you've enjoyed learning a little bit about damselfly identification; I have become thoroughly hooked on these colorful little gems. Next time I'll introduce you to a few Virginia dragonflies. As always, please feel free to contact me at 757-410-7147 if you have any questions, observations, or insights!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

I Love Photo-Sharing Night at the Library -- Please join us!

Every three months (at the end of each season), a group of nature and wildlife photographers get together at the Chesapeake Central Library where I work to share photos they have taken during the previous three-month period. We enjoy celebrating each season, since the natural landscape and the wildlife are so specific and relatable to each season. We emphasize the nature that we find here in the Tidewater area, but anyone can share any photos they like from anywhere.

Each photog brings up to 20 photos on a CD or a USB device like a flash drive, and we project those photos from a laptop onto the big movie screen in the library's meeting room. Everyone admires and discusses them and we all have fun and learn a thing or two about our local wildlife. Age and level of expertise have no bearing on our photo sharing and fellowship; anyone is welcome to join us and share in the fun, whether they want to show photos or just watch. (We do, however, ask that no children under 12 years of age attend unless accompanied by their parent). We usually have a group of 10-15 people.

So, this is an invitation to anyone who would like to join us at our next get-together on Monday, July 29 starting at 6:00 p.m. We meet at the Chesapeake Central Library at 298 Cedar Road. If you'd like to show some photos, bring up to 20, and a few more if you like, in the event that we have extra time. Please give me a call if you have any questions or would like more information; the number is 757-410-7147. Ask for Karen.

The photo at the top of this entry is an outstanding capture of a Pileated Woodpecker that Tim Fearington showed at our last meeting in April.   What follows are some of the photos that other participants showed at the same meeting. Please enjoy!

 A beautiful Chesapeake sunrise photographed by Bill Niven.

 Chris Williams found this adult Bald Eagle at the Chesapeake Locks Park. Good luck and talent combine for a great photo op!

Nora Leonard took this stunning photo of a doe.

Green Herons like to skulk about in the shadows, but Tim Fearington captured this one 
out in the open.

 Canada Goose and its perfect reflection at Chesapeake's Locks Park, 
photographed by Chris Williams. 

SO pretty. Yellow Iris by Bill Niven.

Spring blossoms (cherry?) photographed beautifully by Nora Leonard.

Tim Fearington found and photographed this Red-Headed Woodpecker at the 
Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

 Another beautiful photo taken at Chesapeake Locks Park by Chris Williams.

 Bill Niven has a new super-zoom camera and was able to get this great shot of 
an Osprey on its nest from a long distance.